I Have to Ask You: Institutional Knowledge

I Have to Ask You: Institutional Knowledge

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Dan Singer, City of Del Mar, CA, writes about the need to maintain institutional knowledge.


With the ongoing wave of retirements, how should organizations ensure that they’re retaining the institutional knowledge of veteran employees?

Organizations make huge investments in training, retaining and motivating employees to do the good work we do in the public sector.  However, most organizations don’t do “Succession Planning” very well, if at all.  When they do, the focus is often on how to ready the next generation of employees for future leadership positions.  What we miss, however, is the opportunity – if not the need – to capture the years of knowledge and experience in our outgoing, retiring veteran employees.  

In fact, in my experience (and in hearing from other organizations), there seems to be a stigma attached to retirement such that outgoing employees are afraid of announcing their retirement date too early.  It is almost as if there is some perceived fear they will become a lame duck or will be replaced early or maybe they simply don’t want to draw attention to themselves.  But organizations are missing a huge opportunity if they don’t institutionalize some cultural norms when it comes to retiring employees.  

Here are three easy actions our organizations should consider instituting in order to create a supportive culture and capture the knowledge outgoing employees have gained during their tenure.

  1. Create Incentives for Early Notification.  We need to shift the culture of our organizations to reward early notification of pending retirements.  One city I know provides employees who give at least 6-months notice with 1 added paid vacation day.  You can earn 2 vacation days if you give a full year’s notice.  This “bonus” (or any similar incentive) sends a clear signal to employees that it is part of the culture to give early notice; that it’s honorable and appreciated, and not something to cover up or fear.  Note: “notice” doesn’t have to be a public announcement, it can simply be to inform one’s supervisor so steps can be taken to ready the department and better plan for the future.
  2. Work to Memorialize the Institutional Knowledge.  When an organization has advanced warning that a veteran and knowledgeable employee will be leaving, it is incumbent upon that department to capture the employee’s wealth of experience and knowledge.  Yet it is unrealistic to expect the employee to do a brain dump of everything they know and create a desk manual in their final weeks on the job. But how respectful would it be to the retiring employee if they had someone shadow them in order to help create that manual?  A good example of this was in my last city, in our Public Works Department where a long-time Manager was retiring and taking with him knowledge of things that only he knew.  So a young management analyst spent time shadowing him, writing notes, even taking some video and audio in order to capture and then document some of this institutional knowledge.  It was hugely helpful and rewarding to the retiring employee, yet equally rewarding and insightful to the “up-and-comer” who learned so much about the Department.
  3. Train the Replacements.  With enough advanced notice, an organization has ample time to find a replacement and allow a week or more of overlap with the retiring employee.  What better training for a new employee or someone who has been promoted to be able to shadow a veteran employee. Plus, allowing an outgoing employee to spend time training their replacement and showing them the ropes brings satisfaction and peace of mind to the retiree, the new employee, and the department or division, knowing there is little chance that something will fall through the cracks or go unattended.  

What better way to maximize and capitalize on the institutional knowledge of employees then by taking a few simple steps to change our cultures and enhance our organizations?  This way everyone in the organizations wins.


Previously